February 7, 2013
A mathematician says the quest for elegance leads too many researchers astray
Does science have a "beauty" problem? David Orrell, a mathematician and consultant, argues that it does--or, at least, that some of its practitioners are in thrall to ideals involving "elegance," "symmetry," and "unity" that are beckoning them down false paths.
Posted by Jim Zellmer at February 7, 2013 1:58 AM
From Euclid and Pythagoras down to 20th-century physicists, many who explore the underlying laws of the natural world have seen truth and beauty as inextricably intertwined. "Beauty is a successful criterion for selecting the right theory," the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann said in a much-quoted TED talk, in 2007. In their popular-philosophizing mode, physicists like to quote the poets Keats ("beauty is truth, truth beauty") or Blake on the subject of nature's "fearful symmetry."
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I can think of little more important than scientists and mathematicians writing for the lay public to make science and math more approachable. However, I have substantial problem, in these days, with mathematicians and scientists publicly advocating positions within their specialties to the general public.
In this day, not only do we place opinion above knowledge, far too many people have, argue and share their opinions on topics for which they have no business having an opinion.
Such is the case with Shea's book. It might be an interesting read for many who want to have some nodding acquaintance with the topic and who are not and never will be educated enough to understand or fully appreciate the discussion.
But, stupidity has no limits, unlike genius and expertise, and we will soon have armchair instant experts on this topics making policy arguments and opining on the worthlessness of an education and those who have acquired the necessary expertise to make progress.